Ranking the Best Years for Napa Cabernet

Top producers made great wine in the best years of Napa Cabernet

Some of the best years for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon are 2007, 1997, and 1994–you can find plenty of collectible, complex wines from these vintages.

A few years ago, I attended a retrospective tasting event of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at a local wine bar. We sampled wines from some of the best years for Napa Cabernet, and it was easy to see which vintages everyone enjoyed the most. The 2007 wines in particular were a huge hit among the crowd. The man sitting next to me gushed over a glass of intense, incredibly complex 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, saying it was one of the best wines he’s ever had. Most of the 2007 wines received similar praise; it was clearly the winning vintage of the night.

Ranking wine vintages isn’t an exact science. Your preference for one vintage over another depends on the style of wines you prefer and whether you like to store wine long-term or drink it young. However, while rankings are by no means objective, there are still some Napa vintages that critics tend to agree were exceptional. Learning more about the most recent top Napa vintages can help you focus your collecting efforts and find wines that are perfect for both drinking and investing.

What Are the Best Years for Napa Cabernet?

As with any wine or region, the question of which were the best years for Napa Cabernet is somewhat loaded, and every collector’s opinion will differ. People who enjoy fruit-forward wines will gravitate toward vintages like the 2007 and 1997, while those who prefer a more aromatic style might buy more wine from 1985 or 1994. Regardless of which style you gravitate toward, the highest-ranked Napa Cabernet vintages of the past 30 years are (according to critics at Wine Spectator):

  • 1985
  • 1994
  • 1995
  • 1997
  • 1999
  • 2007

It really isn’t possible to rank these vintages definitively, as they vary so much in flavor profile and style that where they fall in a ranking will depend on the drinker’s personal preferences. However, here’s how these vintages compare terms of average critic scores:

Chart of the best years for Napa Cabernet

In general, if you prefer wines that are elegant and aromatic, you’ll likely rank the years as follows:

  1. 1997
  2. 1985
  3. 1994
  4. 1995
  5. 1999
  6. 2007

If you prefer wines that are more fruit-forward and intense, then you’ll find the following rankings more accurate:

  1. 1997
  2. 2007
  3. 1994
  4. 1999
  5. 1985
  6. 1995

The 1997 vintage is considered by most critics to be a nearly perfect vintage, which is why it ranks in the number one spot for both lists. This wine is rich and concentrated, yet it balances those flavors with plenty of complexity and nuance, and as a result, it tends to appeal to almost any wine enthusiast.

Below we’ll dive more deeply into each of these amazing Napa Cabernet vintages to give you a sense of their similarities, their differences, and what makes them so special.

The 1985 Vintage

My grandfather was a passionate Napa wine enthusiast who collected hundreds of bottles from the region over the course of his lifetime. Almost every year for his birthday, I gave him a bottle of either 1974 or 1985 Cabernet–his two favorites. He used to say that the 1970s were the golden age for Napa, and the 1985 vintage reminded him of that era.

Here are just a few reasons why the 1985 vintage stands out as one of the best years for Napa Cabernet:

Weather: Temperatures were much cooler than usual through the spring and the summer. This extended the growing season, as the grapes took longer to fully mature. As a result, 1985 Cabernet is very refined and elegant.

Flavors: Cabernet from this vintage doesn’t taste as concentrated or fruit-forward as it does in many other high-quality years. These wines have an excellent balance between sugar and acidity and the tannin is fine and supple.

Noteworthy Producers: Nearly every producer had great success in 1985. If you’re looking for a few standout wines, consider flagship labels from Opus One, Stag’s Leap, Beringer, Joseph Phelps, and Caymus (in addition to Caymus’ Napa Valley label, seek out the Special Selection from this year as well).

Drinking Window: Many of the wines made in 1985 by lower-quality producers are already past their peak; however, wines from top producers are still drinking well because they were carefully made with aging in mind. Consider opening them soon or selling them on the secondary market within the next couple of years.

If you can find a wine from this vintage by a top producer (and from a trustworthy seller), grab it. The 1985 vintage was arguably the best of the decade for Napa, and these wines continue to impress more than 30 years later.

The 1994 Vintage

My friend has dozens of bottles of 1994 Napa Cabernet in his collection–it was the very first Napa vintage that he started collecting in earnest. His love for this vintage began in the late 1990s, when a sommelier told him that the 1994 vintage was worth laying down long-term. He started buying as many bottles as he could, and today, it’s one of the only New-World vintages from the 1990s that he continues to seek out.

What makes the 1994 vintage so age-worthy and high in quality? The following factors led to an immensely successful vintage:

Weather: Like the 1985 vintage, the weather during the summer of 1994 was fairly cool. There was a brief heat wave in June, but by July temperatures had cooled again, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly and develop healthy acidity. Another short heat wave in August gave the grapes more concentration and richness than the 1985 vintage, but this didn’t take away from the vintage’s fresh flavors.

Flavors: The 1994 vintage is very ripe, fleshy, and high in alcohol content, but it’s not jammy or overtly fruit-forward. Instead, it’s fresh and vibrant, offering plenty of complexity and layers of flavors. While the specific flavors vary from producer to producer, all of the top wines from this year have similar depth.

Noteworthy Producers: Overall, wines from this year were high in quality among top producers; however, some had more success than others. Shafer, Robert Mondavi, La Jota, Joseph Phelps, Dominus, Dalla Valle, and Abreu all crafted exceptional wines in 1994. If you’re specifically looking for a 100-point wine, seek out bottles of 1994 Harlan, which are in high demand on the secondary market.

Drinking Window: You can drink these wines now, but if you have a particularly valuable bottle (like Harlan), then you may wish to keep the bottle in storage for a few more years in order to resell it for a greater profit later.

The 1985 and 1994 vintages are fairly similar in structure and aging potential. Collectors who enjoy the 1985 vintage will likely also enjoy wines from 1994; both are among the best of their respective decades.

The 1995 Vintage

Critic Stephen Tanzer says that 1995 Napa Cabernet wines are often compared to the 1994 vintage, but he and other critics found that the 1995 vintage was less approachable in its youth. As a result, this vintage was underrated upon release. With time and maturity, though, 1995 has become one of the best years for Napa Cabernet and it now ranks nearly as high as the 1994 among critics.

The 1995 vintage was high in quality due to the following conditions:

Weather: The 1995 growing season in Napa was extreme in precipitation; heavy rain showers and hail hit Napa in the late spring and early summer, delaying fruit growth, and Cabernet grapes remained small through most of the summer. Luckily, a warm weather streak in September allowed the grapes to fully ripen just before harvest, giving the wines great concentration and intensity.

Flavors: The 1995 Napa Cabernet vintage started with hard tannins that made these wines somewhat difficult in their youth, but these have softened significantly with time. The wines are rich, velvety, and elegant, with excellent structure and a perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.

Noteworthy Producers: The best producers from this year include Dunn, Caymus, Robert Mondavi, Dominus, La Jota, and Diamond Creek.

Drinking Window: While these wines are well-structured enough to keep a few more years, they’re drinking beautifully right now, so unless you plan on reselling them on the secondary market, it may be wise to uncork them soon. Most of these wines aren’t expected to develop much more in complexity than they already have.

Compared to the 1994 and 1985 vintages, the 1995 Napa Cabernet vintage is more reserved. For collectors who enjoy a refined Cabernet, this vintage is ideal. It may also appeal to enthusiasts who normally collect Old-World wines, as this is a very elegant, classic year for Napa Cabernet.

The 1997 Vintage

Unlike the 1995 vintage, 1997 Napa Cabernet was almost universally beloved upon release. This vintage was concentrated, opulent, and supremely approachable in its youth. The only question that most critics had was whether these wines would stand the test of time. However, more than 20 years later, many of the best wines from this year are still drinking well and may need even more time in storage to reach their full potential.

Here are the factors that made this one of the most legendary Napa vintages in recent history:

Weather: Weather conditions in 1997 were absolutely ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. The vines started budding a full month ahead of schedule, giving the grapes ample time to fully ripen over the summer. The summer months were moderate and even in temperature, and as a result, the grapes matured uniformly across the region.

Flavors: These wines are deeply concentrated and full of black fruit flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon from this year is darker in color than usual. You’ll also find firm tannins in wines from this vintage, meaning that these wines should continue to age gracefully.

Noteworthy Producers: I love Duckhorn’s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon in particular because it’s ripe and fruit-forward, yet also wonderfully balanced and elegant. Other top producers from this vintage include Dominus, Hartwell, Staglin Family, Shafer, Stag’s Leap, Robert Mondavi, and Silver Oak.

Drinking Window: These wines have a nearly perfect structure, which offers them great aging potential. For this reason, hold off on opening this wine as long as you can. They are currently very valuable on the secondary market, and their value should continue to grow for wines from top producers as they mature and gain complexity over the next decade. However, if you’re looking for a wine to open now, most of these wines are currently drinking beautifully.

The 1997 vintage is arguably the best of the past 30 years. Out of the six vintages we discuss in this guide, 1997 was ranked highest by critics, in large part because of its age-worthiness and concentration of flavor. It may not appeal to collectors who dislike fruit-forward wines, but it has an excellent balance which may win over even the most selective palates.

The 1999 Vintage

Critic Jon Bonné says that 1999 Napa Cabernet is his favorite type of vintage. He explains, “They don’t quite make themselves clear until the wines have had a bit of time to mature. But at their best, they show just how great wines get better with time.”

The following qualities gave the 1999 vintage this incredible aging potential:

Weather: Many of the best years for Napa Cabernet had cool weather conditions overall. Lower temperatures give the Cabernet grapes enough time to mature slowly and develop complex flavors, instead of ripening too quickly and becoming simplistic and overly fruit-forward. The 1999 vintage was an extreme example of this–the weather was so wet and cold through most of the summer that winemakers feared the grapes wouldn’t reach maturity at all. However, by early September warm weather finished ripening the grapes just before harvest, leading to a successful vintage.

Flavors: These wines are more acidic than most Napa Cabernet vintages, making them perfect for collectors who want to age them long-term. They are also very concentrated in flavor and firmly structured. Critics who have tasted these wines recently say that they have extraordinary depth.

Noteworthy Producers: The most successful producers allowed their grapes to mature on the vine for as long as possible and harvested their crop later than usual. You’ll find excellent wines from Robert Mondavi, Staglin Family, Diamond Creek, Shafer, Stag’s Leap, Robert Craig, La Jota, and Silver Oak.

Drinking Window: These wines are drinking well now and are likely nearing their peak, but due to their high acidity and depth of flavor, you may choose to hold onto your bottles a little longer. If you do, keep in mind that you might not notice any significant improvement in complexity over the next few years.

How does the 1999 vintage compare to the other vintages on our list? It ranks among the highest in terms of aging potential–you can continue to store these wines over the next decade without risk of spoilage. It is also one of the most complex wines on this list, perhaps second only to the 1997 vintage.

The 2007 Vintage

When I first heard about the high quality of the 2007 vintage, I was excited, but also a bit skeptical. Critics absolutely gushed over these wines early on and I worried that expectations for this vintage were too high. However, as time goes on, the 2007 vintage has proven that it deserves every bit of praise it’s received over the past ten years. It’s certainly among my favorites of the decade.

These are the factors that led to 2007’s immense success:

Weather: Spring rain slowed the development of fruit in 2007–the grapes were the smallest winemakers had seen in almost a decade. Yields this year were also lower than usual, as budding was sparse in the spring and some grapes struggled to reach maturity during the cool summer months that followed. However, the grapes that made it to harvest are among the best Napa has produced. Cool summer temperatures allowed slow, even flavor development and an early fall heatwave increased sugar levels just before harvest.

Flavors: This is an intense, flavorful vintage that is dark in color and very tannic. It’s not especially high in alcohol since the grapes were only exposed to hot temperatures for a few weeks in late August and early September.

Noteworthy Producers: The producers that created the best wines of 2007 include Schrader, Colgin, Robert Mondavi, and Shafer.

Drinking Window: Due to its excellent structure, balance, and rarity (low yields limited the number of bottles producers could craft in 2007), this vintage is in fairly high demand on the secondary market. If you own any bottles from top producers, hold onto them for a few more years, allowing them to reach peak maturity. Wines from lesser producers are approaching their ideal drinking window, so take a look at recent tasting notes and wine ratings for each producer to find out when you should ideally uncork your bottles.

The 2007 vintage is similar to the 1997 vintage in terms of intensity and complexity of flavors. It isn’t as elegant or refined as wines from 1985, 1994, 1995, or 1999, but it fully embraces a New-World, fruit-forward style that many enthusiasts find appealing.

Ranking Other Napa Vintages

The six vintages above are among the best years for Napa Cabernet in recent history. However, this is by no means a comprehensive list of every vintage worth investing in from Napa. Many other past vintages (such as 1968 and 1974) are also very high in quality. That said, these older vintages are relatively rare on the secondary market and some are past their ideal drinking windows, so finding bottles may be more difficult. You should also look to more recent vintages from Napa, as many of these have investment potential as well. The 2012, 2013, and 2014 vintages are all high in quality, and while they do not yet rank as highly as the six vintages in this guide, they could increase in value and score as time goes on. These three vintages are expected to age beautifully over the next decade, so you should consider investing in a few bottles now, before they increase in value or demand. Wines like 2012 Shafer, 2013 Paul Hobbs, and 2014 Bryant Family received excellent scores from most critics. For a detailed look at the 2014 vintage, you may also want to take a look at our post on the best 2014 Napa Cabernet.

It’s difficult to know what the next Napa Valley “it” vintage will be. That’s because vintage rankings change over time and are subjective in nature. One collector’s “extraordinary” vintage is another’s “very good”; rankings vary depending on whether a collector prefers a fruit-forward, intense style or an elegant, reserved Cabernet. Still, when you seek out wines from these high-quality vintages, you’ll likely come across at least one bottle that aligns with your palate’s preferences. Overall vintage quality doesn’t tell you everything about a particular wine, but it can help you narrow down your choices and find your next favorite bottle.

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